Print edition : August 24, 2012

Ten arrested leaders of the Maruti Suzuki Workers' Union, including its president Ram Meher and general secretary Sarabjit Singh, after being produced in a court in Gurgaon on August 2.-PTI

Maruti Suzuki is unable to get past its troubles on the industrial relations front as the bloody violence and lockout in its Manesar plant show.

THE scene on July 18 at Maruti Suzuki India Limiteds (MSIL) plant at Manesar in Gurgaon district of Haryana was straight out of Indian action films. A verbal skirmish on the shop floor leads to allegations of casteist remarks and is followed by the quick suspension of a worker without so much an as an inquiry. The workers rally around him, and mayhem and arson spread across the plant and culminate in the death of a top management official. The company declares a lockout.

Last year, the 200-hectare plant witnessed workers protests for almost six months between June and November following the managements reluctance to recognise the newly formed Maruti Suzuki Workers Union. That agitation, in which workers from other factories at Manesar joined, was peaceful despite accusations of provocation by bouncers of the management.

Industry-watchers thought the Manesar labour problem had been put to bed. But it came back with a vengeance, claiming the life of Awanish Kumar Dev, general manager (human resource). The cause of the mayhem is not known, but conspiracy theories, including some which suggested that the car manufacturers competitors were behind the arson or that factionalism in a section of the management could have led to the current stalemate, were afloat. Around 100 workers have been arrested and many others have gone underground fearing arrest.

At around 8-30 a.m. on July 18, Sangram Kumar Majhi, a supervisor on the shop floor, allegedly scolded Jiya Lal by calling him a Dhedh (a casteist abuse). Jiya Lal reportedly retaliated in anger. According to the MSIL management, he beat up the supervisor. The worker was suspended from service.

Jiya Lal reportedly did not accept the suspension letter. He is said to have approached the union. At the unions instance, the workers did not leave the factory. They gathered in the passage between the administrative block and the paint shop. Meanwhile, the workers in the B shift came for work. A meeting of union representatives, which was attended by Awanish Kumar Dev and other representatives of the management, started in the administration block. The union office-bearers were told that indiscipline among the workforce was on the rise and that Jiya Lals behaviour was a serious case of misconduct.

The police entering the Maruti Suzuki plant on July 21.-PTI

There are various versions about what exactly happened at the plant. According to workers representatives, there was some verbal exchange when the supervisor used inappropriate language against the worker and this was followed by a scuffle. The management then suspended Jiya Lal. That the management and the union held talks is a fact not denied by anyone. However, it is not clear at what stage the talks broke down. The lockout notice, which was issued on July 21, seems to suggest that everything happened abruptly. According to the notice, at the instigation and direction of the union, workers who had arrived for the B shift left their workplace at 6 p.m., picked up heavy objects made of iron and began hitting the supervisory and managerial staff, who wore blue and white caps respectively. Worker representatives allege that the talks broke down as bouncers of the management roughed up union office-bearers.

Interestingly, the lockout notice begins by narrating the incident of assault by the worker on the supervisor, suggesting that the alleged assault by Jiya Lal was unprovoked. What is significant is that the subsequent violence occurred several hours later, in front of a fairly large contingent of police, which included the Deputy Superintendent of Police. The management informed the police immediately after the initial rumblings began and when workers, who were to join the second shift at 3 p.m., were not allowed to do so by those who had completed the first shift. The police arrived soon after and were present on the premises until 7 p.m. when the violence began. The management and the police had nearly 12 hours, from 8-30 a.m. to 7 p.m., to resolve the dispute.

The DSPs role

I am in touch with the jailed workers, along with Ranbir Singh Hooda, a senior criminal lawyer, said Rajendra Pathak, a lawyer himself. Interactions with the workers lodged in the district jail in Gurgaon convinced Pathak that there was more to it than meets the eye. Why did the DSP not fire in the air? The workers, most of whom are young, would have dispersed immediately had that happened. How were representatives of the management attacked in the presence of the police and why did the management not ask for more force when they saw the build-up? he asked. It is another matter that the DSP, whose role itself needs to be investigated, is in charge of the special investigation team. We will not leave these boys at the crossroads, he said.

According to a delegation of the All India Lawyers Union (AILU), which met the workers, police officials and representatives of the management, there appear to be some loose ends in the story. After the initial verbal skirmish involving the supervisor, union leaders prevailed on the management to withdraw the suspension of Jiya Lal in the interest of harmonious industrial relations. A prolonged standoff had halted production last year and neither side was keen to create a situation that would lead to a similar impasse. It was learnt that senior officials were keen to withdraw the suspension and proceed with a normal inquiry into the incident, but the middle-level management was reluctant to do so. Even as negotiations were on with the unions, musclemen employed by the management roughed up the union leaders, it is alleged.

Matters went from bad to worse. Workers outnumbered the police and the musclemen, and there was a free-for-all. Equipment was destroyed. Apart from the most unfortunate incident involving Awanish Dev, no other officer of the management sustained grievous injuries. It was apparent that the workers did not intend to kill anybody despite their being armed with metal objects. The AILU delegation felt that the fire that broke out on the premises may have been due to a short circuit. The sequence does not support a premeditated assault or sabotage. No one is happy that the official died. But while the media show the tears of the management, the tears of the workers are never shown, said Pathak. Many boys, he said, were rounded up just because they were employees of MSIL. The new union, which got registered recently, is apparently considered the pocket union of the management. Had the union been in touch with us, maybe this kind of violence would not have happened, he added. Nearly 100 workers have been arrested and placed in judicial custody while three more were arrested at the time of writing the story.

Interestingly, reactions from industry have been one-sided. Its concern, if any, has been about the image of the nation, declining investment, and law and order. Not a single statement looked askance at the growing labour unrest, preferring to view it as a mere law and order problem. While the company itself issued a long statement denying that there was any industrial relations issue involved in the violence, facts on the ground seem to belie the claim. Workers do not attack the hand that feeds them, however inadequate the food might be. They are pushed to it only after they suffer constant humiliation and inhuman treatment. The negotiations over wage revision and issues of regularising trainees and apprentice workers were continuing. Yet I do not believe that workers will take as extreme a step as killing someone. There is definitely more to the incident, said Satbir Singh, State president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). He said that the concern to revoke Jiya Lals suspension was not a surprise as there was a feeling among workers that suspension would lead to termination as had been the practice earlier.

A statement issued by the company on July 19 puts the blame entirely on the workers. As is clear from the statement and the lock-out notice pasted on the gates of the company at Manesar, no attempt appears to have been made to institute an impartial inquiry. Unilateral action was taken against the worker but the abusive supervisor was let off. By any account, this is not an industrial relations problem in the nature of management-worker differences over issues of wages or working conditions. Rather, it is an orchestrated act of mob violence at a time when operations had been normal over the past many months, the statement read.

Awanish Kumar Dev, the statement said, was an outstanding professional and team member, compassionate, soft-spoken and deeply committed to cordial industrial relations. In the past year, he had been instrumental in the company taking far-reaching steps to enhance the well-being and working conditions of workers at the Manesar plant. The workers do not deny this. He was among the better officers in the management. The company claimed that some 100-odd management representatives had been injured. Such acts of violence pre-planned, unprovoked and gruesome have implications beyond one company or region. They are negative triggers for existing companies and regions across the country, as also for prospective investors and job-seekers, the company said. It claimed that the office facilities had been burnt beyond repair, as had been the main gate, the security office and the fire safety section. The top management team visited the injured colleagues in the hospitals in Gurgaon, where they are admitted. Their experiences are shocking. A few of our colleagues remain serious. While the rest are recovering from the physical injuries, it will take them a while to come out of the trauma. The injured include two Japanese expatriates, including the plant manager of the Manesar plant, the statement said.

It is surprising that the management did not show such concern for the workers when a prolonged agitation last year left them leading a hand-to-mouth existence.

Interestingly, leading industry bodies view the July 18 incident as an outcome of problematic industrial relations. Condemning the violence, the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) urged the workers and the management to amicably resolve the disputes, if any, in the overall interest of the development of the State and the nation in general. Worried about the snowballing impact it might have elsewhere, D.S. Rawat, ASSOCHAM secretary-general, hinted at the involvement of outside elements and urged the State government to deploy more police force and take preventive measures. No country can afford any disruption in its economic activities at this critical juncture. In northern India, it is only Gurgaon which is witnessing labour troubles continuously and, therefore, the workers and the management should be more vigilant about outside elements, he said. The State, he said, was attracting investment in services and real estate sectors but its manufacturing base had not expanded. Frequent labour trouble forced the existing units to expand outside the State, he said. Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) president Adi Godrej was more cautious, stating that the incident was unexpected, especially as dialogue was on between the management and the workers on unresolved issues.

Awanish Kumar Dev, general manager, human resource, of MSIL, who was killed in a fire at the Manesar plant.-PTI

Unresolved issues are often the precursor to festering industrial disputes. A CII statement issued by its president said: CII strongly believes that any disputes between the management and the workers must be settled through a discussion and a dialogue in a peaceful environment within the rubric of law. CII fears that this unfortunate event would dent the countrys image which might impact investors impressions of India in terms of safety of investments. On industrial relations issues, it is imperative that an environment of trust is fostered. The management, workers and the State government have responsibilities, which need to be discharged with sincerity.

The issue goes beyond homilies of harmonious industrial relations, and industry as a whole needs to take a major responsibility for labour unrest. The unequal pattern of growth and the unequal development of cities where 70 per cent or more of the people live in abysmal conditions while a small minority live in planned colonies and green areas enjoying uninterrupted water and electric supply, are aspects deeply connected with harmonious industrial relations. To dissociate the tensions on the shop floor from the environment and living conditions of the working population of Gurgaon could result in a myopic understanding of the problem. Heavy deployment of the police, as suggested by some sections, would be counterproductive. The AILU fact-finding report has underscored the fact that one of the major grouses of the workers continues to be the heavy deployment of contract labour, devoid of any protection under the labour laws. Interestingly, on June 20, the Labour Department initiated proceedings against Maruti Suzuki executives for allegedly violating the signed agreement with its workers under the labour laws. The management had failed to keep its promise to form grievance redress and welfare committees.

It was no surprise that on July 25, as many as 16 unions in Gurgaon, including the Maruti Suzuki Kamgar Union, at MSILs Gurgaon plant, issued a statement reiterating their demands, which included equal pay for equal work, enhancement of minimum wages to Rs.15,000, regularisation of all employees doing work of a permanent nature, withdrawal of cases against workers who were booked in the infamous Honda lathi-charge agitation in 2005, a high-level judicial inquiry into the violence at MSIL, abolition of the contract system of employment, creation of residential colonies, and provision of ration cards for workers.

In 2011, there were three separate instances of workers protesting at MSIL. Although the initial rumblings began in April over the recognition of the Maruti Suzuki Employees Union by the management, workers started a stay-in in June with recognition for the union as the main demand and also raised work- and wage-related issues. This lasted for 13 days, followed by another 33 days of protest in August-September. Again, in October, a 14-day stay-in was observed, which ended following a tripartite agreement, which also involved the State government. But what followed was seen by the workers as a setback. Thirty workers, who included those who led the protests, were asked to take voluntary retirement with a severance package of Rs.16 lakh each. All the 1,100 contract workers were reinstated as per the agreement. A separate union, called the Maruti Suzuki Workers Union, was formed, which was perceived to be close to the management. But the union leaders declined to sign an undertaking that prohibited them from being affiliated to any trade union.

Satbir Singh told Frontline that there were talks of wage settlement, too, though the management insisted that the union should not raise issues relating to trainees and apprentices.

The wage settlement was to happen last year when the union leaders resigned, Kuldeep Jhangu, general secretary of the Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union told Frontline. Another office-bearer of this union fears that more repression will follow.

At Manesar, two workers of Senior India, an ancillary automobile unit manufacturing exhausts for big auto brands, told Frontline that they, along with 10 others, were suspended following the registration of their union. The majority of the workers here are on contract. At our unit, there are 67 permanent workers and 500 are on contract, they said.

The State government is equally culpable in this episode. The high-level inquiry committee it has set up should probe the compliance of labour laws and the role of the government in enforcing them. An inquiry into the incident without locating it in the larger context will be meaningless.

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